One day, long ago, in my mostly-forgotten childhood, I read a story about a wizard named Andrak.  The story itself was embedded in a tome which largely concentrated on the doings of other people, and I am unable to recall much of the rest of these happenings.  Nor was I able to find them on the Internet after a couple of searches based on what fragments I do recall, so both this tale’s provenance and its fidelity to the original source must remain in question.  I rather like that, I think, as it gives the telling something of a mythic air.

Anyhow, this Andrak was young and wise and brilliant; the very model of a wizard.  His peers, such as there were, all stood in awe of his talents.  He was a prodigy and a genius, so everyone agreed he was destined to be the greatest of them all.  Andrak himself was not immune to the charms of his potential and naturally shared this very high opinion of his ability.  Which, to be fair, was quite warranted.

Enter the Dark Lord, whose true name, origins, and even general features have long since been lost to me, though I presume that he had much in common with Tolkien’s Sauron or the darker incarnations of Loki, the trickster God of Norse fame.  Anyhow, he calls upon the Wizard Andrak at his tower and, after the typical reception one may expect a fellow like the Dark Lord to get after arriving unannounced, puts to Andrak a simple question: “What is reflected in a mirror when there is absolutely no light?”

Long after Andrak haughtily dismissed the Dark Lord, the question remained.  It had burrowed into his mind, much like a splinter just under the skin, and he found he couldn’t get it out of his head.  It seemed like such a simple question.  Certainly it was one that he, with all his talents and wisdom, could readily divine the answer to.  And yet, the answer eluded him.  If it were nothing, as one would obviously suspect, how could he prove it?  And if it were something … well, that would be quite the discovery, would it not?

As time went by, Andrak grew ever more obsessed with finding the answer.  He constructed elaborate rigs to test the question.  He drew the shades on his windows and cast spells to deepen the shadows, in an attempt to purge even the slightest rays that might slip through.  He spent countless hours studying and refining his theories of optics and reflection.  And after each test failed to definitively establish the question, he would redouble his efforts yet again, unwilling to be brought low by such a deceptively simple problem.

After years of increasingly haggard, restless work deep in the shadows, alone with his mirrors, he finally found his answer.  The legend tells that Andrak’s agonized scream at the moment of horrible realization could be heard from miles away.  And, it is told, that was the moment he became a servant of the Dark Lord forevermore.

This little tale has come to the forefront of my mind as I’ve found myself growing ever more obsessed with a deceptively simple question that, like Andrak’s, has proven to have drastic implications.

What happened to Detroit?

In 1960, Detroit was the fifth largest city in the United States[1] and its richest, in per-capita GDP terms[2].  It earned this wealth largely on the strength of the automobile industry.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that Detroit’s specialty was the automobile industry, because so much goes in to making a car.  You need lots of steel, oil, rubber, and energy.  You need to shape the raw materials into a bunch of different particular configurations.  You need to assemble them very carefully, using at least semi-skilled labor and a bunch of expensive machine tools, so that the defect rates are low enough to keep too many of your customers from getting killed.  You need to be constantly refining your product, both artistically and technically, in order to keep abreast of the competitive world market.  And in addition to all the inputs that go directly into automobile production, the whole edifice requires a local economy capable of supporting all of the workers, engineers, and managers needed to keep all these factories humming, since they’re all busy building cars that will be mostly exported away from the city to be consumed elsewhere.

In 1960 – within living memory – Detroit was arguably the most civilized place on Earth.

In 2013, the city government of Detroit filed for bankruptcy.  In so doing, the emergency manager of the city, who was appointed earlier that year by the state government, put forth a rather remarkable document, which can be found here:  Do not be fooled by its anodyne title.  This is one of the most chilling works I can ever remember reading (and I’m a Lovecraft fan!).  It is 134 pages of dry description, with lots of tables, explaining the results of comprehensive institutional failure within the jurisdiction.  The last half offers up a possible plan to get the city stabilized, largely by bulldozing half the city to the ground and retrenching to a smaller, more maintainable footprint.

By all means, read it yourself if you’re in the mood for nightmare fuel.  But for those who haven’t the stomach for it, here are some choice excerpts:

  • “The City’s population has declined 63% since its postwar peak.”
  • “The City’s unemployment rate has nearly tripled since 2000 [from 7.3% to 18.6%]”
  • “In 2012, the City had the highest rate of violent crime of any U.S. city having a population over 200,000 … The City’s violent crime rate is five times the national average.”
  • “Residents and business owners have been forced to take their safety into their own hands; some relatively well-off sections of the City have created private security forces.”
  • There is an entire subsection of the document entitled “The City Must Provide Functioning Street Lights”.
  •  “There are approximately 78,000 abandoned and blighted structures in the City, nearly half of which are considered dangerous, and 66,000 blighted and vacant lots within the City limits.”
  • “The City’s electricity grid has not been adequately maintained and is deteriorating.”
  • The document details that the city has a serious problem with fires starting in blighted buildings, and helpfully mentions that the “Average cost to demolish a residential structure is approximately $8,500”.
  • “In February 2013, Detroit Fire Commissioner Donald Austin ordered firefighters not to use hydraulic ladders on DFD [Detroit Fire Department] ladder trucks except in cases involving an ‘immediate threat to life’ because the ladders had not received safety inspections ‘for years’.”

And in case you’re curious, they don’t build cars in Detroit any more.[3]

When I first saw this, I didn’t believe the situation could possibly be this bad.  How could it?  Then I discovered a genre of photography known as “ruin porn”[4].  A simple image search for “Detroit” shows many of the most shocking images.  You can also find them in news articles, like this one from a newspaper in the UK:

Gaze upon modern Detroit in all its horrific splendor.  It looks like a war zone.  Or maybe something out of a bad post-apocalyptic thriller.  When I look at these pictures too long, I can’t shake the feeling something dark is staring back out at me, as if they were tourist snapshots of Nietzsche’s abyss.

In 1960, Detroit was the most civilized place on Earth.  In 2013, if these accounts can be at all trusted, almost nothing worthy of the appellation “civilization” remains.  How could this have happened?  This sort of thing doesn’t just happen by chance.  These brute facts demand explanation.

It’d be explicable if Detroit lost a war.  I could see it if rampaging Canadians swept down from the north to burn the city to the ground; or if the city had been suffering from an extended famine for the past decade; or even if half the population got drafted to die in some foreign field.  Heck, I’d even buy a breakout of a zombie plague.  But, to the best of my knowledge, absolutely none of that happened.

So the question remains.  What happened to Detroit?

The rest of this essay is my amateur attempt to answer that question.  I shall leave it to the reader to judge whether or not this obsession has led me into the service of the Dark Lord, like Andrak before me.

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